Cairns during World War II - stories and photos

Let’s look back and see how Cairns and the Far North region was involved in World War II.  It was a time of ration cards, restricted areas, censorship and backyard bomb shelters as the city was at the forefront of the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 and the general Pacific offensive during 1943.

When the Japanese started to make their way down the Malay Peninsula, the Commonwealth Government called for voluntary evacuation of the population.

About half of Cairns’s 15,000 population dropped everything and headed inland or to the south, some selling everything they had for a pittance.

Schools closed and authorities, including both Cairns and Mulgrave Councils and the Cairns Harbour Board, busied themselves devising a secret plan to demolish key sites like the wharves, oil tanks and reservoir if the enemy made it to Cairns.

Anti-aircraft gun emplacements were established along the Cairns foreshore and at False Cape, and every Sunday night, police would sound the siren so residents would practice air raid procedures including wearing gas masks.

Bombs were dropped at Mossman and a Japanese submarine was reported off the coast near Yarrabah.

Trinity Beach was used as a major training ground for defence forces for amphibious landings.

The Americans opened their own Post Office in Abbott Street and thousands of soldiers were housed in a massive transit centre built in Sheridan Street before being transported to New Guinea.

Beaches

Looking at the beautiful surrounds of Trinity Beach today, you wouldn’t think that it was the location for intense training for thousands of soldiers in World War II.

Between May 1943 and December 1944, the beach was full of Australian and American troops who underwent intensive training – day and night – for all aspects of amphibious warfare before heading off into the war zones north of Australian shores, particularly in Borneo and Papua New Guinea.

Many of the soldiers camped along the Captain Cook Highway, particularly at Deadman’s Gully (near Clifton Beach). Conditions were rough and ready, especially during the wet season.

By late October 1945, the Trinity Beach training headquarters was shut down and the area again became a popular recreational spot for Cairns residents.

Major General George Vasey was the popular Commander of the 6th Australian Division which took part in the training exercises. Unfortunately, he was killed on 5 March 1945 when the RAAF Hudson he and 11 others were travelling in crashed into the sea about 400 metres out from Machans Beach.

To honour the Major General, the Mulgrave Shire Council named the esplanade at Trinity Beach after him. They also erected a plaque in a brick memorial wall to commemorate the loss of the 11 service personnel in this tragic crash.

Colonel Cummings Drive at Palm Cove was named after former Cairns resident Colonel Clem Cummings who was the Commander of the 1st Australian Beach Group based at Trinity Beach.

Bombings

You might not believe this but during World War II even our region was targeted by the enemy.

Mossman gained its own place in history on 31 July, 1942 when eight bombs were dropped from a Japanese long-range flying boat, around 13km north of the town.

One landed the near the home of the Zullo family, with shrapnel piercing the corrugated walls of the house and slicing through the scalp of two-year-old Carmel (Mele) as she lay in her cot.

The incident was formally documented in a report which stated that five or six enemy aircraft had been sighted over Mossman on 31 July and noted that “a bomb was dropped one mile north of the post office at Miallo”.

One chap at the time recalled how, upon hearing the aircraft noise, his father had rushed outside in his pyjamas, rifle in hand. “I yelled for dad to ‘shoot him down’.”

“As the plane flew on, I could hear a rack-racking noise then I saw a black bomb drop down from out of the plane’s belly. We heard other booming noises but could not see anything so Dad pulled on his Voluntary Defence Corps uniform over his pyjamas and went off to investigate.”

A nurse at the Mossman Hospital recalled she was on duty when they heard a plane overhead and went to look outside.

“It looked like a big black hawk circling the mill and right around the town area. It flew so low that in the bright moonlight we could see the pilot’s helmet.

“Then about 5am the superintendent of the Mossman Ambulance walked in wearing his tin helmet and covered in mud and said: We have our first air raid victim. Little Mele Zullo was taken straight to theatre to be treated for head wounds.”

The bombing was even reported in The Bangkok Times and the whole incident gathered more credibility when the logbook of Japanese pilot Sub Lieutenant Kiyoshi Mizukura confirmed the bombing.

The logbook states that the crew saw light and, assuming it was Cairns, dropped eight bombs at 3.30am on what they thought was the aerodrome.

A replica bomb and plaque was unveiled by Carmel Emmi (nee Zullo) at the spot on 31 July 1992 to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

Carmel was the only civilian casualty inflicted by the enemy on Australia's east coast during World War II.

Catalinas

For our older residents Anzac Day is a reminder when Cairns was a very different place during World War II, particularly  when the Battle of the Coral Sea was waged in 1942 and the general Pacific offensive throughout 1943.

Squadrons (No 20 and No 11) supporting around 30 “flying boats” called Catalinas and Martin Mariner aircraft were based in the city, carrying out 3000 missions during their time here. The pilots were housed in local hotels or stayed at a camp set up at the site of the Catalina Memorial on the Cairns Esplanade.

Records show that by May 1944, a total of 113 decorations and awards were received by the men of both Squadrons. Of course, not all of the pilots returned to our shores – 320 pilots died during the Pacific operations and nearly all of those who lost their lives were temporary citizens of Cairns.

The memorial on the Esplanade was erected in 1976 as a recognition of the role of the Catalinas and their brave pilots.

In 2016, a memorial service was held and a commemorative plaque laid to mark the 11 crew who died when a RAAF Catalina crashed 56km off the coast of Cairns on 28 February 1943.

As a mark of respect, their remains were never recovered from the wreckage, which was discovered by a diver in 2013.

The Krait and Z Force

As Anzac Day draws nearer, many of our newer residents may not be aware of the important role Cairns and the region played in World War II.

It was here that the brave men of the famous “Z Force” trained for what would be remembered as a most daring and successful raid against enemy shipping in Singapore Harbour in September 1943.

It was at the former home of the first Mayor of Cairns, Richard Kingsford, known as the House on the Hill, where the crew members of the small fishing vessel called the Krait trained for the covert mission which would ultimately result in seven ships in Singapore Harbour being sunk or badly disabled.

Operation Jaywick, as it was known, involved the crew being disguised as Malay fishermen so they could infiltrate enemy territory to carry out their mission.

To prepare for their assignment, the men undertook “raids” on shipping in Townsville Harbour, the catalinas in Cairns Harbour and planes at the Cairns aerodrome.  Here they learned how to stealthily attach bombs to the hulls of ships and the bottom of aircraft.

The Krait was originally an old Japanese fishing vessel called the Kofuku Maru which was renamed after a small but deadly snake, and transformed for the mission at the slip near the Stratford Barron River Bridge.

The Krait was used by the Australian military throughout the war, and was present at the surrender of the Japanese forces on Ambon in September 1945.

In fact, the Krait sunk more enemy shipping vessels that any other vessel in the Australian Navy during the war.

VIPs

As Anzac Day draws nearer, it is interesting to think about what life was like in Cairns during the World War 11 during a time when the city was the base for thousands of Australian and American soldiers involved in the Pacific operations.

That brought the occasional celebrity or VIP to the city, often staying at the Hides Hotel.

Even the “Duke” took the trip down under to entertain the troops in January 1944. John Wayne was a big star in those days and is pictured here with a US Weather Squadron member at the Cairns Aerodrome.

Other VIP visitors includes America’s first lady at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt, Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey, and the Supreme Allied Commander of the Southwest Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur.

Victory in the Pacific (VP) Day

Like many other parts of the world, Cairns knew how to celebrate when the war in the Pacific was over in 1945.  It was called VP Day (Victory in the Pacific) and was celebrated globally on 15 August 1945.

Nearly 75 years ago, Cairns residents joined Australian troops to turn out in their thousands in the city centre as the “town went delirious with joy” according to The Cairns Post the next day.

“Dignity was thrown to the winds” as spontaneous celebrations took over the city streets.

“…. The main idea was to create noises – joyous noises … with one accord the people rushed to the streets, linked arms with the nearest passers-by and ran around and around the block shouting to their heart’s content,” the newspaper report said.

For two hours the impromptu procession continued around Shields, Spence, Lake, and Abbott Streets, gathering more trucks and vehicles as it went.

Because coloured streamers were not available, The Cairns Post provided the crowd with large quantities of coloured paper which was draped on cars and trucks. It was noted afterwards that all that was left after the event were littered streets, sore heads and an old dog.

An official procession and ceremony was held in Cairns the next day (16 August) which drew one of the biggest crowds ever seen in the city.

Thanks to Bruce Downie, who was stationed here from 1944 as a signaller with the 41St Squadron of Martin Mariner Flying Boast, we have these great images of VP Day celebrations in Cairns.

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Last updated: 22 April 2020